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A Look at What California Can Be in 1994 : Politics: Under the social and economic problems, there are rays of hope.

<i> Catherine O'Neill of Los Angeles is co-founder of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. </i>

One of the most horrendous tales I heard growing up was the biblical story of the slaughter of the innocents--the baby boys of Bethlehem killed because King Herod of Judea had heard rumors of the birth of a leader who might some day challenge him. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to save their newborn son, Jesus.

Today, as everyone in California knows, there is no place to flee. As we gather our families and think about the personal blessings we enjoy, it is not easy to identify the “good news” for society. And yet I believe we end this year with a clearer insight into the changes we must have and a renewed will to make them.

The state and particularly Southern California have begun a harsh self-examination. There is something of a consensus developing about some of the more difficult steps that must be undertaken to, in the words of state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, “take California back from the brink.”

Moreover, we have seen a new burst of political leadership in California this year that is serving us well. Our two new Democratic senators have attacked their jobs with creativity and gusto. Dianne Feinstein will deserve the credit if assault weapons are outlawed, and Barbara Boxer is joining Feinstein in developing some serious new proposals to cope with an immigration influx that threatens to swamp the state and result in a backlash against “outsiders.”

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Many of the new voices California has sent to Congress are singing choruses of the same song, all of which involves doing more for California than has been done in a long time. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey), representing the South Bay, so badly devastated by aerospace cutbacks, is trying hard to get technology conversion dollars directed back to California.

At the local level, Mayor Richard Riordan is creating an atmosphere of openness to new ideas and unorthodox proposals; he has spoken on national television about his wish to get guns out of private hands and has shown a willingness to clean house when ethical questions are raised about his senior staff.

One of the first challenges to all in California is to make the state a model zero-tolerance zone for criminals by instituting Draconian new measures such as boot camps for young first offenders and mandated drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation programs before release.

Our legislators might have begun moving on such ideas a decade ago, but perhaps they have been just too busy nosing after as many campaign dollars as they could attract. Thankfully, after 1994, many more of them will be gone, and we will begin to move away from the era in Sacramento pictured in the trial of Clayton Jackson, in which the lobbyists basically called the shots in the Legislature and everybody partied together. We can thank ourselves for voting in term limits.

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Many of us were lucky enough to live in California in the 1960s, when public schools were safe, housing for young families was affordable and jobs were plentiful. For those who knew that California, there is a stark realization that you can’t go home again. Los Angeles is commercially overbuilt, lacks an adequate transportation infrastructure and has a deteriorating ring around the downtown urban core, an eroding job base, housing costs that remain a barrier to young families and public schools that often seem frightening to students and teachers.

But a team of hard-nosed, optimistic leaders is slowly being put in place by California’s voters. The state is also getting a lot of attention from President Clinton, who, while seeing the year end with crippling personal stories, knows that helping California economically is an important element in keeping his job.

The most polyglot state in the union has not yet fully determined how it will pull its many peoples together. A Balkanized Southern California has a greatly diminished chance for revitalization. The Latino community will play an important role in the area’s regeneration, and everybody must learn new ways of power-sharing and trust. One of our New Year’s resolutions might be to take some small personal steps in that direction.


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